This week's breathtaking episode of Game of Thrones ("The Old Gods and the New"), written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Nutter, is easily my favorite episode of the season to date, not least of which is because it departs significantly from George R.R. Martin's novel. While this may alarm some purists, the ability to inject surprise and shock in even the most knowledgeable readers is something to celebrate here; it raises the stakes significantly and allows writers like Taylor (who, it must be said, is delivering truly fantastic work) and David Benioff and Dan Weiss flexibility when it comes to crafting the story. Too often in adaptations, it's impossible to take meaningful detours on the way to their respective stories' ultimate destinations.
Here such detours should be held up and praises, so long as they allow the viewer to evaluate the material in a different way, to experience the story (and the novel's subplots, as well as its many off-screen developments) in a new and interesting way. The Arya (Maisie Williams) and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) scenes are sensational and reveal elements of both characters in a way that would not be possible other than putting them in a room together. Watching Arya conceal her identity--even when faced by the unexpected arrival of Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen)--and dance around the fact that she's a high-born lady is genius; it displays her own sense of cunning and need to survive at all costs, subsuming her identity within whatever is immediately available. We get this notion from A Clash of Kings as well, seeing her transform from Arya to Arry to the Ghost of Harrenhal, borrowing a new identity as one might a cloak. But here, she's put to the ultimate test, facing down her ultimate enemy in the belly of the beast. The moments of subterfuge--distracting Tywin with a question so she can nab the scroll on the table--play out magnificently; she doles out bits of her assumed identity as a means of gaining her adversary's confidence and trust.
We're told in the episode, by Shae (Sibel Kikelli), that we should trust no one. This is especially true in Westeros and Essos: trust and loyalty are things to be exploited rather than rewarded. The dog at your table will bite you as soon as it will save you. Civility, it seems, is a fragile shell. Crack it even barely and you find the true savagery of most people.
Which is largely what "The Old Gods and the New" is about: the wild, untamed spirit of some of the characters. Just as Theon (Alfie Allen) betrays the Starks, despite being raised at Winterfell "among [the Starks] but never one of them," the notion of wildness permeates the entirely episode, from Ghost's standoffishness beyond the Wall and Qhorin's words to Jon to Ygritte (Rose Leslie) and Osha (Natalia Tena). Is it ever possible to tame something wild and unpredictable? Or, phrased differently, are we all just as wild at heart, underneath the pretense that we're honorable?
It's interesting that it's the most wild among the Westerosi--the Hound (Rory McCann), Sandor Clegane, who Joffrey further humiliates by calling "Dog"--who is actually the most honorable, noble, and chivalrous of the lot at King's Landing. A crowd gathering in the streets of King's Landing to gawk at the royal processional after Myrcella (Aimee Richardson) is sent off to Dorne turns violent quickly. When a cowpie is thrown at him, King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) reacts with such petulance that the mob turns ugly. The High Septon is literally ripped apart by the mob, his arm held up like a trophy by one of the unwashed mass. Citizens they may all be, but their baser instincts quickly take root when Joffrey eggs them on, promising death as recompense for their insulting behavior. Their frenzy turns deadly: besides for the High Septon's gruesome end, there are multiple murders and rapes (Lollys Stokeworth, was that you?) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) is pursued and attacked by several men.
I was glad to see that Sansa didn't relent, but fought back, despite being outnumbered and outmatched. The horror of the near-gang rape scene was keenly felt in her terror and distress and the savage and uncaring masks of her attackers, seeing her as something to be destroyed, to be bloodied and used, to be cast off like garbage. It's the Hound, of course, who comes to her rescue, the "monster" who is far more civilized than his master--or anyone, really--would give him credit for. (In fact, it's the fourth time the Hound has saved her: last season, he chided Joffrey when he made Sansa stare at Ned's rotten head on a spike; he saved her from a beating when he told Joffrey that Sansa wasn't just being superstitious when she made the comment about his name day; he gave her his cloak when Joffrey orders her stripped in the throne room.)
Upon seeing the frenzy of the crowd, the first thought that Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) has is of Sansa's safety, but he's thinking in far more pragmatic terms, seeing the Stark girl as a bargaining chip, a hostage, a pawn. It's not the Hound's perception. He sees Sansa as a "little bird" whom he saves from the hungers of the crowd, bringing her back to the keep so she can be returned to her "cage." His sense of honor and morality is at odds with both his "freakish" appearance and his own use of brutality. Rather than just save Sansa, he disembowels one of her captors and slays them all gruesomely. He has the bottle to be just as brutal as anyone else, but he has a moral code that sets him apart from the wildness of those around him, particularly flailing, bratty Joffrey. It takes a swift slap across the face from Tyrion to get Joffrey to calm down and see the error of what he's done, allowing Sansa out of their hands. Tyrion might be honorable, but he's also sensible: lose Sansa and they lose their only shot at getting Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) back from the Starks. ("You owe him quite a bit," Tyrion says of Jaime. HE'S YOUR FATHER, he seems to shout silently. YOU FOOL.)
But that wild influence isn't limited to just a rioting crowd in King's Landing: it's felt potently beyond the Wall and at Winterfell. Both Theon and Osha were kept as prisoners, though Theon's cage, as opposed to Sansa's at King's Landing, was far less obvious. It's clear that he has a lot of resentment towards Ned Stark and towards his "brothers." While we're not treated to the siege itself, Theon manages to pull it off without much bloodshed, waking Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) up to tell him that seized Winterfell and that he should yield to him. It's here where things go horribly wrong, particularly concerning the death of Ser Rodrik Cassel (Ron Donachie), the castellan of Winterfell. When Ser Rodrik refuses to yield or bow before the self-styled prince, Theon is determined to use him as an example. But it's Ser Rodrik's final words ("Now, you are truly lost.") that will echo for an eternity for Theon; his decision to commit murder, to eradicate the last vestiges of honor and of Ned Stark's teachings will damn him forever. Theon can't even give Ser Rodrik a clean death; unlike Ned Stark, Theon doesn't know how to behead him cleanly. Ser Rodrik's death is messy, and gruesome, and prolonged. He may have swung the sword, but he wasn't worthy of carrying out this execution. His attempt to take Ned's place only reminded everyone of how unworthy he truly is.
Interestingly, it's Jon Snow (Kit Harington) who has learned from his father. When he and the members of the rangers under Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) come across a wildling party and he unmasks one of them as a woman, it's Jon who offers to kill her himself rather than have Qhorin or the others do it. After learning that the free folk are gathering in the "hundreds and thousands" in the Frostfangs, Ygritte has outlived her usefulness; her kind would kill Qhorin as soon as spit at him. It's the only thing to do and Jon takes it upon himself to behead her. But for all of her wild nature, Ygritte relents, turning over and putting her head on the rock, muttering how "cold" the sword is on her neck, begging him to do it and make her death a clean one. (And to burn her body afterward, so that she doesn't return as a wight.) But Jon can't bring himself to kill a woman; his honor part and parcel of who he is, his connection to morality marking him as a son of Ned Stark. Instead, Ygritte makes her escape, leading Jon to give chase in order to stop her.
(Aside: while I commented on it last week as well, the scenery and cinematography here are stunning. The Icelandic glacier where this was shot gives a haunting wildness to the backdrop as well as a stirring realism. The ice and frost of beyond the Wall was masterfully juxtaposed with the balmy sunniness of King's Landing as Myrcella is sent off. And, yes, I did hear the cry of the eagle over the glacier when Jon and the Night's Watch attacked the wildling camp. Hmmm...)
Later, Jon is forced to spend the night with his prisoner, to cuddle up next to her in order to stay alive, their body heat protecting them from the brutal cold. But Ygritte isn't content to just lie there; she wriggles next to Jon in an effort to turn him on, to torment him. But Jon took an oath of chastity and he's not falling for Ygritte's trickery. Or has he? Has Jon underestimated her own cunning and strength because he sees her as a woman rather than a wildling, a warrior?
It's a mistake that Theon makes as well, seeing Osha as something wild, a dog, a "kitchen slut," rather than a threat. By seducing Theon and going after his own base, animal instincts, she gains mastery over the "prince," using the opportunity to lead Bran, Rickon (Art Parkinson), Hoder, and the direwolves to safety. Clearly, Taylor meant for us to think that Osha had gone to the other side and was engaged in some self-preservation, but her misdirection here concealed Osha's true plan: escape. She trusted in the predictions contained in Bran's dream and the death of Ser Rodrik completed the prophecy therein. But Bran's connection to these dreams, to the three-eyed raven, signal something wild in themselves, something that Osha can't leave behind with Theon. And so this makeshift band of survivors slips out beyond the walls of Winterfell.
Just as magic seems to be creeping back into the world, so too is a wildness as well: the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of several characters is commented on as well as a connection to something old and wild and unbreakable. Dragons have returned, a boy sees through the eyes of a direwolf, a red woman conjures shadows from her womb.
Qhorin's words to Jon that his death will matter little to the southerners on the other side of the wall--that he'll die a bastard and no one will even know his name--are significant. Their responsibility to protect the realm comes first before everything, even their lives, but they shouldn't give those away so freely either. It's their swords and shields that create the fragile sense of civilization of society; their sacrifice ensures the safety of so many others. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when that shell is broken.
On the other side of the sea, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) offers her own wildness to the Spice King (Nicholas Blane), demanding a fleet of ships so that she can "retake" the Iron Throne. The Spice King is clearly being set up here--haughty and rude, outspoken and predatory--as the culprit in the theft of Daenerys' dragons and the murder of poor Irri (Amrita Acharia), a storyline that doesn't appear in the books at all. But I'm not so sure that he's behind it. Rather, I think he's a red herring, the obvious choice for being the mastermind behind the theft of the three dragons... and that the Undying are behind it instead.
Whether I'm reading too much into things remains to be seen, but I hope that, regardless, the Spice King gets his comeuppance, though I will miss his imperiousness ("This one has a talent for drama"). Instead, he or someone else has awakened the dragon, prompting Daenerys to go into "fire and blood" mode and smite her enemies. Her own abilities--that of precognitive visions and invulnerability to fire--separate her from being a mere human or a "little princess." She too is as wild and untamable as her dragons. And just as deadly.
Some other stray observations:
-I'm glad that Robb (Richard Madden) caught Lady Talisa (Oona Chaplin) in lies so easily. She is not who she claims to be, something noticed by both Robb and instantly by Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) upon meeting her. Catelyn reminds Robb that he has responsibilities and debts that cannot be cancelled out: he is not free to love, but is promised to another. Yet, there's Talisa...
-I loved the scene where Littlefinger nearly noticed Arya was Tywin's cupbearer but kept getting distracted. Littlefinger is a crafty one, but Arya kept turning away every time his attentions became fixed on her. Did he notice and not say anything? Or does he never fully process who is actually standing right in front of him the entire time? Hmmm.
-The death of Amory Lorch was fantastic, as Jaqen (Tom Wlaschiha) assassinates him within seconds of Arya giving him the second name. That he falls face-down on the floor in front of Tywin was amazing.
-The banter between Joffrey and Sansa as Myrcella sailed off was priceless. "Well, it's not really relevant then, is it?" He's such a ponce.
-The Hound's words to Tyrion: "I didn't do it for you." Ooh.
-Jaime was dyslexic! I loved getting a glimpse into his childhood and Tywin's own feelings about his children, refusing to give him on Jaime and teaching him to read, despite what the maesters said about his inability. And Tywin's feelings towards his own father, who ruined them and their family name. But Arya scores a point on Tywin for quick wit when she's asked what killed her father. Her answer, fittingly: "Loyalty."
-It's Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) who brings word of the siege of Winterfell and offers to send his bastard to take back the castle. Robb acquiesces, but says that he (A) wants Theon kept alive, and (B) that Rickon and Bran's safety is paramount. Oh, Robb, this is a family whose sigil is a flayed man. You're not going to get levelheadedness from this clan; what you'll get is violence and brutality.
All in all, "The Old Gods and New" represented a massive achievement for Game of Thrones, a stunning display of well-crafted dialogue, subtle acting, deliberate pacing, and glorious setting, and the firm establishment that the show's continuity is well and truly separate from that of the novels. It seems as though the wild things are truly everywhere in the midst of war. Whether you try to tame them or cage them, they have a nasty way of biting you--or worse--when you turn your back. Could it be that Shae is right and the best course is to trust no one? Or does that way folly lie as well? Regardless, it seems as though the danger is only beginning and that before long Westeros could be overrun by wildlings... or destroyed from within. Either way, this way the true erasure of civilization lies.
Next week on Game of Thrones (“A Man Without Honor”), Jaime (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) meets a distant relative; Dany receives an invitation to the House of the Undying; Theon leads a search party; Jon loses his way in the wilderness; Cersei (Lena Headey) counsels Sansa (Sophie Turner).